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What is the biggest productivity killer: Email, Social, ….?

Recently, a colleague of ours sent me a note with the subject line “I should not be sending this by email!”  It was an article noting that email may have become a productivity killer, and suggesting that social media may be the saviour. However, within 24 hours, a second article crossed our desk suggesting that social may be causing the same problems.  So our question to you is, which is the productivity killer in your office — and what can be done about it?

The ever-expanding in-box

The article our colleague was referencing came from Fast Company, and was written by Ryan Holmes, CEO of HootSuite, a social media management system.  Holmes argues that email is a serious killer of productivity in organizations, including his own.  He writes:

“Email is familiar. It’s comfortable. It’s easy to use. But it might just be the biggest killer of time and productivity in the office today. I’ll admit my vendetta is personal. I run a company, HootSuite, which is focused on disrupting how the world communicates using social media. Yet each day my employees and I send each other thousands of emails, typing out addresses and patiently waiting for replies like we were mailing letters on the Pony Express.

The social solution

Holmes argues that the solution is to change the paradigm: “Turn email into a conversation. Get rid of the inbox. Build an online platform where departments can post and respond to messages on central discussion threads, Facebook-style. Then integrate that with Twitter and Facebook so great ideas can be broadcast — with a click — to the world.”

Holmes suggests that users — especially in the younger demographic — are taking that route now.  The result is the decline in email usage (see accompanying chart).  He writes: “Among 18-24 year olds, time spent on webmail has declined 34% in the last year alone, and nearly 50% since 2010, according to comScore’s 2012 U.S. Digital Future in Focus report.”

Social’s collateral damage

Not everyone thinks that this will cause productivity to increase, however.  David Carr, editor of The BrainYard, the social media section of InformationWeek.com, recently wrote: “Active Facebook users are more likely to complain of information overload — and to believe it’s gotten worse in the past year, according to a study published in the Association for Information Systems.”

The study focused on changes to how Facebook handles its news feed function and is based on small-sample survey of university students, but its authors have been studying other aspects of social media and generalize to the larger topic of information overload.  Carr quotes from the report:

“These changes have resulted in a constant stream of information on the News Feed, generated through posts shared not only by friends but also through the posts shared by friends of friends. … Because of these profuse unstructured posts, many Facebook users are overwhelmed and frustrated with the large amount of information, experiencing the problem of information overload.”

Are we asking the right question?

So is it social that’s the problem?

In his wonderful novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon provided five “Proverbs for Paranoids,” the third of which was, “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”  We think the question may not be accurate.  Perhaps the issue has less to do with the media and more to do with the message.

In the early days of the commercial internet, we used to provide advice to carriers and brokers on its effective use.   We made some specific suggestions on email to avoid overload.  For example,  just because you can send an email doesn’t mean you should send an email.  We also suggested judicious use of CCs and Reply-Alls, and tools to manage mail (early predecessors to HootSuite).  We think these are still valid.

So what do you think?  Is there an information overload problem in your office (an in your life)?  Is this caused by email, social, other tools?  What can be done?

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